Great expectations

Print edition : December 08, 2001

The wrangling at the United Nations-brokered conference in Bonn to decide on a government for Afghanistan points to the grave uncertainties ahead.

VAIJU NARAVANE in Koenigswinter, Germany

THE forests around the Petersberg castle are painted in lush autumn colours - deep reds, rich browns, golden yellows and fading greens. There is an unrivalled view of the Rhine valley. However, the Afghan delegates, United Nations officials and diplomats from 17 countries who attended the talks to decide on a future broad-based government for Afghanistan, would have had little time to admire the scenery or partake fully of the lavish hospitality extended to them by the German hosts.

Northern Alliance Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni.-JUERGEN SCHWARZ/REUTERS

The cast of characters in the drama unfolding behind the closed doors of the castle was diverse. There were four Afghan delegations, two large ones, two small ones. The main delegations were those of the Northern Alliance, led by Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni, one of the emerging "Young Turks" in the new, post-Masood configuration that has emerged in recent months, and the Bonn-Rome-Frankfurt Group, made up of representatives of the former King, Mohammed Zahir Shah. The King's men (there was also a woman in the group) were led by the former monarch's close confidant, Professor Abdul Sattar Sirat. Mustafa Zahir, the favourite grandson who has always remained loyally by the veteran's side ever since he began his exile in Rome in 1973, was also there.

Whichever delegation you looked at, it appeared to be a case of all in the family: the Pakistan-backed Peshawar delegation led by Hamid Gailani, son of Pir Syed Ahmed Gailani, or the Iran-backed Cyprus Group of Shia Afghan exiles led by Humayun Jareer, son-in-law of Gulbudin Hekmatyar of the extremist Hezb-I-Islami. As if to underline the momentous changes taking place in Afghanistan, two delegations, the Northern Alliance and the Zahir Shah group, boasted the presence of a woman each.

The U.N.-brokered conference began on November 27 under pelting rain, while, nearby, demonstrators from various exiled Afghan groups called for democracy and the restoration of women's rights. The mood during the first three days was upbeat. All the delegations in the plenary sessions made the right conciliatory noises, with the Northern Alliance saying: "We want Afghanistan out of the middle ages."

Yunus Qanooni, the leader of the delegation, condemned extremism and terrorism and expressed the hope that the delegates would agree on a framework for a broad-based interim government. He said: "We have come here as representatives of a people who resisted and struggled for 23 years against aggressions against Afghanistan. Now is the end of a golden era and the beginning of another golden period - from resistance to peace."

Similar sentiments were expressed by Abdul Sattar Sirat on behalf of the former king and his supporters while Humayun Jareer said that he hoped the minorities would be given adequate representation.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.-SHAMIL ZHUMATOV/REUTERS

The U.N. had an ambitious blueprint for the conference: the formation of an "Interim Supreme Council of Afghanistan", or transitional government, a Cabinet-style body of 20 or more members which would run the country for three to six months. It also called for the formation of a Supreme Council, likened to a kind of parliament with some 200 members, and the holding of an "emergency loya jirga", or grand council of elders. The latter would, two years down the line, draw up a Constitution and eventually hold elections.

Working in tandem, the U.N. and Western donor nations used the carrot and stick method to prod, nudge, cajole, and when needed, shame the delegations into moving towards an agreement.

The donor nations which have disclosed their willingness to part with anything between $8 billion and 10 billion in reconstruction aid were not loath to brandishing the stick.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, opening the conference, said the international community had some "clear expectations". The bottom line was: no agreement, no aid. Fischer said that Germany had put aside 80 million euros ($70.48 million) to fund post-war reconstruction in Afghanistan. "Now it is up to you. The responsibility is yours. No one can relieve you of it and no one wants to. I urge you all to forge a truly historic compromise that holds out a better future," he told delegates.

Another key question that the conference was confronted with was that relating to an international force for Afghanistan. A Western diplomat put it bluntly: "If there is no security in Afghanistan, there will be no economic aid. Nobody will send anybody there in order to get killed." A source from a European Union donor dismissed the Northern Alliance's assertion, made by delegation leader Yunus Qanooni, that "there is full security in place in Afghanistan".

Informed sources said that the Northern Alliance had been told "in very clear terms that there will be no big money without security". And former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who attempted to put spokes in the wheel by coming up with objections and counter-suggestions in Kabul, soon found himself bowing to pressure and grudgingly accepting the deployment of "a limited number" of international troops.

A significant development at the conference was the sidelining of the old guard represented by Burhanuddin Rabbani and General Abdul Rashid Dostum by "Young Turks" such as Yunus Qanooni, Abdullah Abdullah and Mohammed Qassim Fahim, who respectively hold the Interior, Foreign and Defence portfolios in the Northern Alliance "government". The Northern Alliance delegation suffered another blow when Haji Abdul Qadir, the Pashtun Governor of Jalalabad, walked out of the conference denouncing "inadequate Pashtun representation".

While no conclusive deal on security was expected to emerge from the talks, diplomats said the deadline for that would be January, when a major donors' conference in Tokyo would decide on billions of dollars in reconstruction aid.

The conference has been a feather in Germany's cap and signifies Berlin's definitive emergence from political dwarfdom in Europe. Berlin has had long-standing cultural and political ties with Afghanistan that go back to the early part of the 20th century and it has assiduously cultivated its image as a bona fide neutral party.

Defence Minister Mohammed Qassim Fahim, who have emerged as the "Young Turks" of the Alliance.-YANNIS BEHRAKIS/REUTERS

Over the last two years, Germany has rather quietly hosted four meetings of Afghan parties and interested nations, including the United States and Pakistan, and has demonstrated its ability to facilitate difficult discussions skillfully. During the last two decades of fighting in Afghanistan, Germany maintained relations with all the warring factions. Today it is home to some 80,000 Afghan exiles, the largest such community in Europe.

The first four days of the conference passed off cordially enough, with much hugging and handshaking. The delegates were so full of goodwill that some of them said the conference would be wrapped up in "three to five days". Famous last words.

At the time of going to press, the conference had entered its seventh day and the wrangling over names and portfolios in a proposed 29-member Cabinet-style interim administration was continuing. With a tussle under way between Zahir Shah and Rabbani for the largely ceremonial role of head of the Supreme Council, the U.N.'s special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who presided over the talks decided to forget about the council altogether and concentrate on the interim administration instead.

The draft framework, circulated by the U.N. and which was under discussion, calls for an interim administration made up of 29 members, with a Prime Minister, five deputy heads, including a woman, and 23 Ministers. It also contains proposals for the setting up of two additional structures - an independent commission which will be responsible for convening a loya jirga in four to six months, and a Supreme Court. The proposal also envisages an international peacekeeping force.

Almost certainly a Pashtun will be chosen to lead the interim administration. The two most favoured names are those of Hamid Karzai and Abdul Sattar Sirat, but the latter is at a slight disadvantage because he is of Uzbek origin. Yunus Qanooni and Abdullah Abdullah of the Northern Alliance are expected to retain their foreign and interior portfolios.

Under the framework resolution, Zahir Shah will nominate the Prime Minister. Hamid Karzai, a pro-king commander who is currently engaged in the battle of Kandahar, is tipped for that post. Significantly, Karzai addressed the Bonn discussions on the opening day via satellite telephone. No other commander was invited to do so.

There is of course no guarantee that an agreement signed in Bonn will be respected on the ground. Ahmad Fawzi, the U.N. spokesman, said about the draft framework: "We want to produce a document that is worth the paper it's written on; not a weak agreement they will not respect when they go home. They have to agree to every word in this agreement and implement it. We will be watching, the international community will be watching very carefully how they implement the agreement." Famous last words, again?

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